Glossary: subsidiarity

Back about a year ago when I was without a Day Job, I twice interviewed with a Catholic political lobby; there I learned the concept of subsidiarity.

I’ll recycle the current Wikipedia article‘s content, since it wraps up the idea pretty well.

the principle which states that matters ought to be handled by the smallest (or, the lowest) competent authority.
. . .

The principle of subsidiarity holds that government should undertake only those initiatives which exceed the capacity of individuals or private groups acting independently. The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person.
. . .
The principle of subsidiarity was developed in the encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, as an attempt to articulate a middle course between the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism on the one hand and the various forms of communism, which subordinate the individual to the state, on the other.

I think this is a missing piece in current Unitarian Universalist discussions about community, against which a subtle individualist rebuff seems to be brewing, most clearly (I think) in traditional Humanist circles. Echoes, too, in the debate about funding the theological schools. And the last thing we need is a proxy war in place of an open decision-making process about the role of central authority. Recent discussion about covenant and polity has become too smoky to be useful, especially by laypersons who might have contributions from other disciplines.

I bring it up because there’s an interesting article in today’s New York Times about Malawi’s resistance to external neo-liberal policies respecting fertilizer subsidies to the countries small farmers. Read the story to the end for an example of the good that can come when the central Malawian government devolves its own authority to local communities.

“Ending Famine, Simply by Ignoring the Experts” (by Celia W. Dugger, December 2, 2007)

With this post, I open the category Core ideas.

2 Replies to “Glossary: subsidiarity”

  1. This idea of subsidiarity sounds like it has rubbed shoulders with libertarianism (little L intentional).

  2. Actually the principle of subsidiarity is the prime principle in the European Union: Brussels should not be in charge of issues that belong to the member states, states should not be in charge of regional issues, and regions should not be in charge of what belongs to the municipalities. And you can blame the EU of almost anything (apart from being the Antichrist!), but not of being guilty of libertarianism.

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